Survival and SAR experts strongly recommend staying with the aircraft or vehicle in most circumstances. Even if on foot, it is generally a good policy to simply stay put and let SAR find you, unless there is little chance they will come looking becuase you failed to notify anyone before leaving. In any case, a compass is a necessity if you should have to travel, for whatever reason. In many areas it is the only reliable way to maintain a straight track through the wilderness. Select a quality compass that is easy to use.
Cheaply made compasses are unreliable and often give significant errors or are undamped and difficult to use. At the high end are sophisticated tools used by professionals and the military which cost upwards of a hundred dollars or more and go far beyond what a survivor needs. These also tend to be a bit on the bulky side and weigh quite a bit more than we'd like. A recreational style compass will do the job adequately, at modest cost. Most of these are plastic with a liquid damped cobalt steel needle.
For years Silva, from Sweden, was the best known manufacturer, at least here in the U.S, followed by Brunton (made here in the U.S.), and Sunnto from Finland. In recent years a number of other brands have come to the U.S. market, including Recta (Swiss) and the industry has seen considerable consolidation and you'll notice many of the compasses with different brand names are identical. Recta is now a subsidiary of Suunto.
It got somewhat complicated in 1996 when Silva bought out Brunton. Since they now owned a U.S. compass company with a distribution network, they decided they would start distributing their products themselves. Much to their suprise, and dismay, they discovered that Johnson Worldwide Associates, who had always previously distributed Silva products in the U.S., owned the U.S. trademark for Silva. Moreover, JWA wouldn't part with it. So, Silva had a product they couldn't sell under their own name and JWA had a valuable brand name with instant recognition and no product. In the end Silva had to start marketing their own product under a new name, "Nexus," with new product names for each of the individual compasses as well since JWA also owned those tradmarked names as well. JWA, meanwhile, contracted with Sunnto to make so-called Silva compasses for them to market. Confused? Imagine the poor consumer who likely has no idea what they are really buying.
The good news is that for the average user, it probably doesn't make a bit of difference. All have similar product lines and make generally high quality equipment. It's the small features that differentiate among them. Whether those features are important for your uses depends in large part on your capabilities in using them.
My choice for my main kit is the Nexus "Pioneer" (formally the Silva "Landmark") which is a small, but reasonably full featured, mirror sight compass (note that the mirror can also be used for signaling) lacking only a declination (in aviation this is referred to as "magnetic variation") adjustment. This replaces my larger Brunton 8040 which had more features, including declination adjustment, but which was larger than I really had room for.
Declination adjustment is awfully convenient, if you are using a compass to navigate from a topographical (topo) map. For those desiring this feature, Brunton's adjustment technique is the easiest, by far, to use.
For more information on declination and magnetic variation, check out Chris Goulet's Magnetic Declination FAQ page.
If space isn't at an absolute premium, the larger compasses are much easier to use and weigh very little more than the smaller ones, 2 to 3 ounces as opposed to an ounce or less. For a larger compass with all the features, I'd have to pick the Brunton 8040. In general, these plastic compasses don't weigh enough to worry about the weight, if you have the space.
Base plate compasses became popular due to their use in the sport of "orienteering" and their generally easy use for the avergae outdoorsperson using a map and compass. More recently, even more specialized versions are now used for the sport. These have pretty much taken over the mid-priced market. These are usually the very best choice for a novice. The Silva "Polaris Type 7" and Brunton 9020 are inexpensive models of this type that will get the job done. There are a myriad of choices with various features within this general style of compass, all of which will work fine.
Small pocket compasses, mini-compasses or button compasses can fit into a pocket, into a personal size survival kit, or worn on clothing. Every manufacturer offers versions in various sizes including some designed to fit on a watch band, to function as a zipper pull or to be pinned to your clothing.
Sun Company makes a line of mini-compasses, often offered by retailers with their own logo (such as REI), with some combined with a thermometer. BCB offers their 20mm "Explorer" wet button compass through their retailers. The more expensive brass Pyser-SGI FB-1605 brass 15mm dry NATO compass is available from Penrith Survival in the U.K. and is sold in the U.S. by Triple Aught Design.
Any button compass selected should incorporate some means of securing it. Otherwise, once out of the kit, the minute compass is easily lost. Most button compasses have a groove around the circumference that is normally used to hold them in a larger device. For our purposes it works great for holding a short length of non-magnetic wire (brass or stainless), twisted tight with a small loop added by which it can be attached securely to your person with a lanyard or similar device.
TIP:Care should be taken when packing a compass in a kit that it is as far away from any materials, carbon steels and iron, that could attract the compass needle, potentially affecting its accuracy.
Worthy of mention because they have a reputation among the hunting and fishing set are the small compasses from Marble's Outdoors (Marble Arms). They have a "pocket" model with a tab and lanyard hole and one designed to pin on which also has a lanyard hole, both about 1 1/8 in. in diameter. They are practically indestructible, machined from solid brass and have a heavy duty lens. Their tiny 1/2 inch diameter brass button compass, designed to be inlaid into knife handles, guns stocks and the like, is unfortunately, no longer produced.
Their most significant drawback is that they are a dry compass, not liquid damped, and are thus a bit more difficult to use in the field. The advantage of a dry compass is that there is nothing to leak out, though that is rarely a problem in all but the cheapest wet compasses. The pocket and pin on compasses are also quite heavy, relatively speaking, compared to the plastic style. They are also a bit pricey (starting at $14 list) compared to plastic versions from the major suppliers that are liquid damped and have better markings.
In most instances, the most likely use for a compass in an survival situation is to maintain a course while walking. In other words, it doesn't take a sophisticated compass to do this.
A downed pilot can navigate, somewhat sloppily, using a compass and a sectional, but it isn't anywhere near as accurate as using a USGS topographical map. It could be a life saver however, so it's yet another good reason to carry sectionals, even when flying IFR. Still, remember that 99% of the time it's best to stay put.
In any case, if you want to make use of a compass, even sticking to the basics, you need to learn how to use it and it is best to do it ahead of time. Trying to learn it from a survival manual, in the field, isn't the way to go about it (where have I heard that before?). By far the easiest, and most fun way to learn is to spend a few weekend mornings "orienteering." Most outdoors stores can direct you to an "orienteering" club or events in your area. They nearly always have a beginners or novice class and will quickly introduce you the basics of how to use a map and compass and maintain a set course. Brunton offers a good video, "The ABC's of Compass & Map" which provides basic instruction in use of these two important survival tools.
If you have a GPS (or loran if the signal isn't blocked), it can reliably point the way towards civilization. If it is a portable GPS unit it can even help you along the way. If you use a portable GPS in your aircraft or vehicle, or even on foot, it would probably be wise to include a set or two of spare batteries for it in your survival kit.
Casio has announced a new GPS wristwatch which is a huge jump in reduction of size to make it more practical for use on foot. Check out our report for more details.
No matter, even having a working portable GPS doesn't eliminate the need for a good compass. All the portable aviation GPS units have very limited battery life, generally only 3-6 hours for first and second generation units, up to 12 to 14 hours claimed for the latest generation. Even the latter is not long enough to last through anything but a short trek, if left on all the time. Practical use of the GPS for wilderness foot travel entails using it to set a course and then to check the course at extended intervals, rationing the limited battery power. You'll still need a compass to keep you on course between checkpoints.
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